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Cell Phone Data Shows Virginians Are Getting Restless

Empty road and sidewalk with blue sky on a spring day in Richmond
An empty stretch of road in Richmond's Carytown earlier this month. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

People in Virginia are leaving home more often and going farther afield than they were two weeks ago, according to cell phone data analyzed by researchers at the University of Maryland.

Still, the data shows that Northern Virginia leads the state -- and in some cases, the country -- in practicing social distancing.

Researchers at the school’s Maryland Transportation Institute parsed the anonymized location data of more than 100 million cell phones nationwide to determine how often people leave home, how far they go, and where they’re headed.

States, cities, and counties are assigned scores on a 100-point index based on the amount and type of activities outside of homes. High scores represent strong adherence to social distancing guidelines.

Virginia notched a score of 49 on Monday, down ten points from its score on April 13. The commonwealth had the 14th highest score of any state or Washington D.C., which leads the country. 

Similar trends have played out across the U.S., according to Professor Lei Zhang, director of MTI and leader of the study. 

People are travelling between counties and states, potentially carrying the disease as they go, Zhang said. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump announced he won’t renew social distancing guidelines set to expire on Thursday.

“We may see additional waves of outbreaks because of the lack of coordination in the reopening plans and the fact that people are still travelling from state to state,” Zhang said.

There are bright spots in Virginia, particularly near Washington DC. The most recent data shows Arlington County has the highest stay-at-home rates in the country, hitting 57% on Monday compared to 35% in Richmond. 

And Virginia’s fall over the last two and a half weeks is not nearly as sharp as other states, like Louisiana and Ohio.

A separate social distancing scorecard set up by the data company Unacast gives Virginia a grade of D- as of Thursday, mirroring the score of the country as a whole.  

Health experts say that in the absence of a vaccine, social distancing remains the most effective tool at stopping the spread of COVID-19.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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